“Memory’s Mantra” by Mark W. Harris
November 17, 2013 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – “Rune” by Muriel Rukeyser
The word in the bread feeds me,
The word in the moon leads me,
The word in the seed breeds me,
The word in the child needs me.
The word in the sand builds me,
The word in the fruit fills me,
The word in the body mills me,
The word in the war kills me.
The word in the man takes me,
The word in the storm shakes me,
The word in the work makes me,
The word in the woman rakes me,
The word in the word wakes me.
Reading – from “Repetition of a Mantram” by Eknath Easwaran
On festival days in India you will often see a huge elephant, [clothed] in gold and gorgeous cloth, carrying an image of the Lord Krishna on its back through the village streets. Everyone enjoys the sight: the musicians with their drums and cymbals in front, then the beast slowly lumbering along and the devotees behind, all on their way to the temple.
But there can be one difficulty. Stalls of fruits, vegetables, and sweets line the narrow, crooked streets, and the trunk of an elephant, as you may know, rarely stays still. It sways back and forth, up and down, constantly. So when the procession comes abreast of a fruit stall, the elephant seizes a shelled coconut or two, opens his cavernous mouth, and tosses them in. At another stall the big fellow twists his trunk round a bunch of bananas suspended from the roof. The mouth opens again, the whole bunch goes in with a thud . . . you hear a gulp . . . and that’s the end of it.
The humble people who own these stalls cannot afford this kind of loss, and to prevent it the man in charge, the mahout, asks the elephant to grasp a firm bamboo shaft in his trunk. Though not sure why, the elephant, out of love for his mahout, does as he is told. Now the procession can pass safely through the streets. The elephant steps right along with his stick held upright in a steady trunk, not tempted to feast on mangoes or melons because he has something to hold on to.
The human mind is rather like the trunk of an elephant. It never rests . . . it goes here, there, ceaselessly moving through sensations, images, thoughts, hopes, regrets, impulses. Occasionally it does solve a problem or make necessary plans, but most of the time it wanders at large, simply because we do not know how to keep it quiet or profitably engaged. But what should we give it to hold on to?
Of late, the ancient word mantra has had considerable exposure on talk shows and in the Sunday supplements. To many it may conjure up an exotic image of flowing robes, garlands, and incense. It may seem to be something impractical and otherworldly, perhaps a bit magical and mysterious. Actually, just the opposite holds true. The mantra – under other names, to be sure – has been known in the West for centuries, and there need not be anything secret or occult about it. The mantra stands open to all. And since it can calm our hearts and minds, it is about as practical as anything can be.
If you have preconceptions about using a mantra, let me ask you to put them aside and give it a personal trial. Why take someone else’s word for it? Enter the laboratory of your mind and perform the experiment. Then you will be in a position to judge for yourself, and nothing can be as persuasive as that.
A mantra is a spiritual formula of enormous power that has been transmitted from age to age in a religious tradition. The users, wishing to draw upon this power that calms and heals, silently repeat the words as often as possible during the day, each repetition adding to their physical and spiritual well-being. In a sense, that is all there is to a mantra. . . Those who have tried it – saints, sages, and ordinary people too – know from their own experience its marvelous potency.
We find a clue to the workings of the mantra in the popular etymology which links the word to the roots man, “the mind,” and tri, “to cross.” The mantra, repeated regularly for a long time, enables us to cross the sea of the mind.
An apt image, for the mind very much resembles a sea. Ever-changing, it is placid one day, turbulent the next. Awesome creatures lurk below in the unconscious – fears and animosities, desires and conflicts. Each of us drifts about on the surface, blown by typhoons and carried by currents, in a rudderless little boat called “I.” With such vast and treacherous waters before us, with no glimpse at all of the far shore, can we ever hope to make the crossing without some help?
The secret of meditation is simple: you become what you meditate on. When you use an inspirational passage every day in meditation, you are driving the words deep into your consciousness. Eventually they become an integral part of your personality, which means they will find constant expression in what you do, what you say, and what you think.” – Eknath Easwaran
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Many Unitarian Universalists find that little 17th century bedtime prayer for a child that was printed in the New England Primer very disturbing for the message it seems to impart. Does it terrorize children that God might come in the night and kill them? Should we give children the message that life is so fragile that they can be gone at a moment’s notice? I learned that prayer and recited it every night when I was little. I don’t recall that I felt frightened trying to go to sleep. If anything the repetition of the same thing gave me comfort and reassurance that all was well. In fact, it does ask God to keep me in God’s care. You could contrast this traditional children’s prayer with the one that Andrea learned from her grandmother. Many of you have heard this before: “The sun has gone down; The friendly dark has come; Now it is time to sleep. Let me think over all I have done; The good deeds to do again; The bad deeds to forego and forget.; Now I shall sleep, and grow while I sleep,
And tomorrow I shall be happy.” This prayer invites us to a friendly dark rather than a scary one, a letting go of bad experiences, and a celebration of good ones to do again. And finally, the frame of consciousness that tomorrow will be better, and you will find happiness. Even if you are interested in psychoanalyzing my wife and me, we won’t go there, but it is informative that Andrea is a more positive person than I am; one who sees the good while I am more pessimistic. I sometimes characterize myself as a Calvinist Unitarian.
Today’s sermon is about the messages we repeat in our heads, and what effect they have on us as people. I do think the religion of my childhood, as contrasted to my wife Andrea’s had a profound effect on me. In addition to the genetic predilections, and dysfunctional family dynamics that we all have, there are the strong message we carry in our heads based on the experiences we have and what we learn. When you say, “Our Father,” over and over again in prayer, you begin to conceptualize God as a man. But for others it can be a caring presence that holds you when you are in pain. When you hear that you are a no good sinner over and over again, you may see life in slightly more negative terms than one who hears that people have inherent worth and dignity.
I am thankful every day that I am a Unitarian Universalist. What is the message or mantra that you keep repeating in your head? Some of the messages I repeated as a child were: I’m no good. I am a failure. It is easy to become the messages we repeat about ourselves. Contrast those messages with: Life is a joy. Life has many opportunities. I am doing the best I can. I am loveable. We all know people who repeat the negative – because I have been hurt, I have a right to be miserable. But for those who repeat that they can begin again in love, perhaps the cycle can be broken.
This is of course what a church or even a country should do, too. We invoke shared passages to bring us back to our best selves. In a couple of days we will mark the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, some of the foundational words we aspire to as a nation. It is the New Testament of America that builds upon the Old Testament of Jefferson’s declaration that all people are created equal. I believe the Gettysburg Address is the longest single literary piece I have ever memorized. Learning by rote was once much more common, and so the generations before me, especially memorized all kinds of poetry and other passages. My father and mother used to repeat things all the time – “How would you to go up in a swing, up in the air so blue??” or “Listen my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” Yet these memorized passages are hardly known now as Longfellow and Stevenson fade into the past.
Yet Lincoln’s most famous speech has not faded, partly because it articulates the kind of democracy we aspire to, one where “there is no permanent and real welfare for any one portion in Society except in connection with the welfare of all the rest of society.” In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln said we cannot let this body politic be broken by disunion, but through the abolition of slavery we will build a world where there are no slaves, and so using words first articulated by the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, Lincoln said “we . . . resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. Is there a cloud of knowing saying, “of the people, by the people, for the people?”
When I was growing up I used to memorize all kinds of Bible passages from the Beatitudes to the Lord’s Prayer to the 23rd Psalm. The church gave little prizes as rewards for memorization. I liked the gifts, and memorization was a useful takeaway for a mind that responds well to information that can readily be absorbed. The verses still provide a kind of mantra to me whenever I am stressed out and need to feel at peace, and were probably an antidote to the sinful faith I was being spoon-fed. Phrases like “Blessed are the peace makers”, “deliver us from evil”, and “he leadeth me beside the still waters,” helped assure me that life could offer people and experiences where peace is a goal, good things can happen, and there are natural places where I could find solace.
And so when difficult times unfolded, and I felt like the situation I was in was out of control, I could repeat over and over, “lead me beside still waters, lead me beside still waters.” A few years ago one of our interns was struggling with having periods of silence in our service. Especially since he had a Christian orientation, I suggested he respond to the non-stop buzzing in his brain with a recitation of the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. These familiar passages would not only get him through the silence in a convenient time frame, but they might also be a pathway to meaning and value as inspirational words to live by.
In history religious ritual has generally been seen as indispensable in deepening spiritual insight. The repetition of rituals instills religious values and attitudes in the lives of the worshippers. Ritual also expresses and emphasizes the things that bind a faith community together, and through ritual both individuals and communities make visible their most basic religious needs, values and aspirations. We can see with our rituals like the water service or flower communion that we aspire to the many becoming one, we value unity in diversity. Lighting the chalice means we are seekers after truth, and also believe that new truths can and will be found.
Our rituals also consist of repeated words. For us that includes a covenant that says, love is the spirit of this church. A similar Universalist covenant says, love is the doctrine of this church. Right away we verbalize that our identity is not grounded in beliefs about God, Jesus or salvation, but rather in living the right kind of life. Love is our spirit and so it is about respecting individual integrity and freedom, and doing unto others to build up the beloved community, and so we repeat, “service is our law.” Then we conclude: To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
Could it be that our covenant, the words we repeat to reflect our reasons for being together, is a kind of mantra? A few weeks ago Johanna Swift Hart shared a beautiful, modern update of the 23rd Psalm as our chalice lighting. This reflected the freedom of UUs to find meaning in rewording traditional passages, but also reflects the enduring value of ancient texts to inspire us. Sometimes it may seem that UUs react strongly to any traditional text, and always aspire to something new, but it is usually because we want those words to accurately reflect the living values that inspire us. Saying “Our Father” or “Hail Mary, Full of Grace” may be meaningless. It may have been something rote to give comfort to many over the centuries, but in our personal context it reflected a false premise or personal disappointment about who or what is holy. We like our religious inspiration to be direct, and not filtered or interpreted through a church tradition or a priest. We are the ultimate believers in Luther’s priesthood of all believers. Everyone can read sacred scriptures for themselves and find meaning and inspiration.
This is reflected in a conversation from J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. At one point Franny prays the Jesus Prayer “without ceasing.” She cannot stop saying it, and eventually it leads to a mental breakdown, and she leaves college and goes home. But she is not just mouthing the words. It has become became integrated into the rhythm of her heartbeat. In a conversation with her brother Zooey, he says, “God almighty, Franny,” . . . “If you’re going to say the Jesus Prayer, at least say it to Jesus, and not to St. Francis and Seymour and Heidi’s grandfather all wrapped up in one. Keep him in mind if you say it, and him only, and him as he was and not as you’d like him to have been.” The idea is that Jesus wanted it to be a direct understanding that the kingdom of God dwells in you, and you don’t need anyone to mediate that understanding. The Jesus Prayer has one aim, and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-Consciousness.
Have you committed certain inspirational passages to memory? What are those? (List . . . . Say . . . ) Could there be some kind of spiritual discipline involving memorization that might heal us and help make us feel more whole? We have already implied that the relationship between religion and repetition is an important one. While we generally know that memorization is an outmoded way of learning, we also know that it has a traditional kind of power. Ancient scriptures have inspired people across social and economic lines for countless generations. If they did not have a powerful rhetoric congregations would not have remembered the teachings and passed them down.
One way this was done was through repetition. Initially it had to be done orally because most people were illiterate. Repetition was important because that way the message was not forgotten. You say it over and over again, and it becomes part of your being. A few weeks ago I looked at a passage from the 93rd Sura in the Koran, which reflected Muhammad’s life. It uses the technique of repetition. “You shall be gratified with what your Lord will give you. Did he not find you an orphan and give you shelter? Did he not find you in error and guide you? Did he not find you poor and enrich you?” But it has to have personal spiritual power for you. It can be tedious and meaningless, like the Jesus prayer if it feels like you are saying it with all those layers. Too often UUs react to repetition because it seems boring and tedious and meaningless.
Most of us know the power of repeated or memorized phrases in some way in our lives. Maybe when you are alone, a few lines from a song enters your thoughts. “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” And you remember the chant. Did you hear John Lennon’s mantra in your college room or at the peace rally, and the personal feeling became magnified to a community, to a people. Those songs may fill an inspirational void or become a longing for what you dream about for this nation or this world. Maybe you simply repeat the word, peace, peace, peace.
At the recent history convocation I attended, one of our theme speakers recounted the UU journey through the civil rights era. Two of my elder colleagues had been in Selma in 1965 when UU minister James Reeb was beaten and killed by racist bigots. The two colleagues were sobbing as they recounted the experience. Our younger African American speaker embraced these two white men as his heroes, and I could hear a refrain of “We shall overcome some day.” Words and phrases become powerful mantras of action, a longing for justice in the world.
We long for words to remember to give us power, and words to we remember that bring us comfort and connection to our past, our family, and what we have learned and value about the world. The other night Andrea was telling me about all the poetry her grandmother learned growing up. Late in life, she became blind and could no longer read. When she could no longer see the printed word, she recalled the oral tradition to inspire and comfort and connect. Not being able to see did not prevent her from being connected in her soul to all that she had found to be good in life.
Like other ancient texts, the Bhagavad-Gita also employs repetition to convey deep meaning. In the Gita, Krishna uses worldly analogies to describe how all-pervasive the soul is: “Weapons do not cut it, Fires do not burn it, Waters do not wet it, Wind does not wither it,” and then repeats, “It cannot be cut or burned, It cannot be wet or withered, it is immoveable, it is timeless.” (2:23-24) Gandhi had repeated sacred lines from the Gita at daily prayer at his ashram. Eknath Easwaran, who developed a way of meditating, modeled on Gandhi’s example, witnessed this. He eventually immigrated to San Francisco, and founded the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation.
The center still teaches his program of spiritual living which centers on memorizing inspirational passages from mystics or scriptures from all the world’s religious traditions. You repeat these passages slowly in your mind, and they become like drops of water dripping into your deep well of consciousness. You absorb them, and they become part of your soul. What I like about this approach is the intentionality, and affirmation of who you will be in the world, and how you will see things. By repeating the words, we focus our attention. Then we begin to become what we meditate. Think of the power of repetitive advertising, and transform that to a reflection of universal consciousness. Teresa of Avila, a Christian mystic, says her “heart is full of joy with love.” Kabir, the Hindu and Sufi mystic says: “As the river gives itself into the ocean, what is inside me moves inside you.” And Rumi says, “I have no companion but Love.” Here we stop talking about religion, and enter religious experience. The joy you keep repeating becomes you.
The type of meditation that Easwaran taught is called “Passage Meditation.” When I discovered this it felt like a method I had employed in some ways my whole life. Meaningful words from mystics and scriptures had been meditated on with the thought that they would go deep into our consciousness. The living prayer is that these words become who you are. If we mediate on words that are a path of love, then we can transform that perversion of religion some of us learned as children. For every faith tradition has this path of love and devotion, but we must see it firsthand, deliver it to ourselves in repetition, and then embody it in our souls and our lives.
So if I say, love is the spirit of this church, or love is my only companion, then perhaps I will be a different kind of person than the one who only sees what’s wrong with things, or avoids deeper relationships, or fears death. In the reading you heard about that large elephant trunk that we wave around, keeping us from focusing on what we need to do to free ourselves from anger and fear. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.” How many times have I said that as two people pledge their love? Could it be a mantra for each of them, for me, for you? Could we say it as the origin of a transformation of our life? The mantra of our most inspirational words can change any of us. It is not magic, but does hold the power to calm us and heal us of the stress that buries the mind. And then it takes us to a place, where only love is our companion.
Meditation by Sue Twombly
Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better
Less is more
Moderation in all things, including moderation
This too shall pass
Eyes on the prize
Perfect is the enemy of good
To thine own self be true
C’est la vie
C’est la guerre
It is what it is
One step at a time
Believe in magic
Fear is an illusion
Where you are right now is exactly where you need to be
Love is the spirit of this church
Closing Words – from Kabir
The flute of interior time is played whether we hear it or not.
What we mean by “love” is its sound coming in.
When love hits the farthest edge of excess, it reaches a wisdom.
And the fragrance of that knowledge!
It penetrates our thick bodies,
It goes through walls –
Its network of notes has a structure as if a million suns were arranged inside.
This tune has truth in it.
Where else have you heard a sound like this?